Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Most Useful Gift….

…..of living aboard is perspective. It is true that one cannot usually see the forest for the trees. Panorama is polar opposite to macro.

I enjoyed many things about a recent sustainable living festival. And I saw at the same time how very far we have to go. Coming to alternate energy use from the position of having cut land ties has caused me to see implementation of renewable sources from a very different perspective from land users.

I am entirely grateful to my friend Carol Steinfeld, ( environmental author and purveyor of real working solutions, for persuading me to get out to this event. The bike ride there was great fun and, so was the lift home as it was a long day. I’m also grateful to the organizers as it was an inspiring venue with great entertainment. Attendance, I’m told was less than hoped. Here are some thoughts from the experience and maybe some ideas for how to make it more interesting.

It seems that land application of renewable energy still lacks an important element of considering the balance of use and production. It is convenient that grid connection allows us to overlook discrepancies between what we consume and what we make, but that makes it paradoxical. The incentive to achieve balance is diminished if the only consequence to excess consumption is a higher monthly bill. I’m speaking in general terms of the difference between on and off “grid.” The festival offered an ideal setting for a balanced off grid demonstration, but relied on portable generators for power needs and left massive solar arrays displayed for sales purposes connected to nothing. Authenticity and purpose would have been enhanced were this not the case.

A notable lack of technical expertise has also invaded the sales arena of renewable energy materials. I know that not everyone is interested in numbers, but it seems something other than vague concepts of benefit and easily manipulated statistics should be at hand when an innovative idea is offered up. I’m not speaking of knowledge of product on a molecular level, but I would expect more than to have a tape measure produced in response to a query about solar array size… or a voltage meter in response to the clarification that wattage was my interest. I suppose that buying a solar array to replace energy formerly schlepped aboard or to provide comforts focuses one’s interest on what the product can achieve. I’m reminded of a shop front in Brooklyn which installed solar panels on their sun awning. The two that are installed directly under a fire escape equal my entire array, yet will never produce a Watt. Their only achievement is to advertise the good intentions of the shop owner. Yet their cost in human and fossil energy to come into existence was the same as those which would give back for 20 years and more. To me they represent, like the ill informed purveyor, how many false starts a good idea must survive before it provides the service for which it was designed.

It was inspiring to meet and talk to lots of folks who want to learn how to do something, regardless of what it is, to lessen impact. But it was equally disconcerting to find still a large number who would reject solutions that required them to do something. Yes, a composting toilet requires more direct responsibility than the flip of a lever. There is a price to be paid in personal energy if society is going to be relieved of expenditure of other forms of energy. The lesson was that it’s still a long road to the realization that we will need to ratchet down expectations of convenience to truly make a difference. Again, I feel fortunate to have made choices many years ago that make convenience a gift and not a birthright to me. As the great sailor and mountaineer Bill Tillman said, “One cannot miss what one has not become accustomed to.”

There was a miracle machine truck that supposedly ran on garbage on display. I hope I’m mistaken, but the vague and general process explanation, coupled with the maze of PVC pipes masking taped together and spray painted flat black, screamed of snake-oil to me. I have been called a harsh critic, but the utterance of even one phrase familiar from my thermal dynamics classes would have granted the benefit of doubt. Instead I could not get the image of the crystal-ball wielding carpetbagger from the “Wizard of Oz” out of my mind.

I liked the fuel cell hotrod. Here was a working application of the early phase of a promising concept in a package to grab the attention of a boy of any age. Its huge bank of batteries, though, were a reminder that we still really don’t have a clue how to store energy unless it is in the form of fossil fuel. As well, our appetites for energy are poorly suited to the slow and steady production of renewable sources after a century of taking for granted the instantaneous and large energy release of petroleum sources.

There were many, many other ideas and concepts present. There were also many people present who genuinely wanted to find inspiration to move in the right direction, and I’m certain, some who did find it. For me the question arriving and leaving was the same. How can one life’s experiment with finding balance and a form of sustainability, albeit in a unique choice of setting (living afloat) be carried ashore to help land based folk in their quest for similar solutions? I guess the answer is just to get out there and connect and hope to eventually find the sort of collaboration that opens doors.

Lest those living in (fiber) glass houses be accused of throwing stones, I will admit to copping out, staying late for the best of the entertainment venue, and bumming a lift home in a fossil burner!

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